Bilingualism & Heritage Languages in the Home
Updated: Jun 17
What is a heritage language?: Heritage languages are languages spoken in a child’s home that are not the language spoken by the majority community (Paradis, 2007). Other terms for heritage language include “home language”, “native language”, and “mother tongue”. In Western Canada, English is considered the majority language. The most common heritage languages in Metro Vancouver include Cantonese, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Tagalog (Statistics Canada, 2017).
“Our family speaks a different language at home. Should I only speak English to my child?” This is a common question that parents ask speech-language pathologists. Rightly so as there are a lot of myths surrounding bilingual language development in children.
Some parents ask this because they worry they could be confusing their child. They might hear their child mix English with their heritage language in the same sentence. For example, a bilingual Spanish-English child may say “I soy Michelle” instead of “I am Michelle” or “Yo soy Michelle”. This is called code-switching or code-mixing, and it is a typical part of language development in bilingual children (Paradis, 2007). Even bilingual adult speakers do this too!
Other parents might ask this because they worry that speaking another language causes language delays. Fortunately, research shows that this is not true. A bilingual child’s total vocabulary in both their languages is about the same as a child who only speaks English (Petersen, Marinova-Todd, Mirenda, 2011). Their grammar develops roughly the same as English-speaking children as well (Genesee, 2005).
Take Home Message: To answer the question “Should I only speak English to my child at home?”” No! Please continue to speak your heritage languages with your child!
There are numerous benefits of speaking your heritage language that is supported by research evidence (Kai-Raining Bird, Lamond, Holden, 2012). Parents and children need a shared language to interact with each other. Having a shared language allows children to communicate not only their wants and needs, but also their creativity, humor, and aspirations. It also allows them to build connections with other family members who may only speak the heritage language.
If language is connecting, a heritage language is connecting with your culture. So don’t hesitate to connect with your child using your heritage language in the home and beyond.
By: Ruzzelle Gasmen
Registered Speech-Language Pathologist
Genesee, F. H. (2009). Early childhood bilingualism: Perils and possibilities. Journal of Applied Research on Learning, 2 (Special Issue), Article 2, pp. 1-21.
Kay-Raining Bird, E., Lamond, E., Holden, J. (2012). Survey of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorder. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders. 47, 1, 52-64.
Paradis, J. (2007). Early bilingual and multilingual acquisition. Handbook of multilingualism and multilingual communication, 5, 15-44.
Petersen, J., Marinova-Todd, S.H, & Mirenda, P. (2011). An exploratory study of lexical skills in bilingual children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-011-1366-y.
Statistics Canada. (2017, August 4). Proportion of mother tongue responses for various regions in Canada, 2016 Census. Retrieved from https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/dv-vd/lang/index-eng.cfm